Sunday, July 08, 2012

Sneaking In And Out Of A World Heritage Site

Here is the story about a secret entrance into the Old Summer Palace that we have inadvertently discovered.

Adjacent to this one out-of-the-way section of the Old Summer Palace (which, by the way, is enormous; it would literally take all day to walk around the entire collection of lakes and gardens), there is an alleyway neighborhood that is home to thousands of Beijing's fringe residents. (To give you a bit of the flavor of this neighborhood, we can report that as we were walking down the main little road, we watched as a boy of a few years old squatted down and did his business--number one and number two---right there on the sidewalk.)

Right on the other side of the back wall of this neighborhood is a World Heritage Site, the Old Summer Palace, a place of great importance in Chinese history. For a long time, the Old Summer Palace was a countryside refuge for emperors (this is hard to believe now, since the site has been enveloped by the city of Beijing), until it was ransacked in the 19th century by British and French troops. People come from all over China and the world to visit this spectacular and tragic place.

Rather than be deterred by the presence of a seven-foot high dividing line between China's imperial past and alleyway present, residents of this down-on-its-heels location have devised a unique way of bridging the gap...They simply climb over the wall.

As you can see from the accompanying pictures, the wall has been shaped to create a makeshift set of stairs. You are looking at, in the background, a man using these stairs to get into the park. You are also looking at an older man, in a safari-style hat and with a canteen around his neck, instructing Z to climb over the wall and head in. This man had just come out himself, as we stood there and watched.

So why do these residents move freely in and out of the Old Summer Palace? As the safari hat and canteen suggests, exercise and recreation is an apparent motivation. We have seen parents carrying their children's bicycles over the wall. In essence, the Old Summer Palace is the local, neighborhood park for the residents of this little corner of Beijing.

I can also imagine that some of the older women who walk around the park touting water and trinkets may use the secret entrance as well, as I have wondered for years how it could be worth it for them to pay the entrance fee, given the already low margins they are operating on.

What a fascinating little glimpse into the collision of China's past and present, of its grandeur and alleyway sensibilities...



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